Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Snowpiercer and the Machine of Life

What’s left of humanity—after we broke the world—is crammed in a speeding train that circles a frozen Earth … forever.

Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer is a stylish post-climate change apocalypse allegory. A dark pastiche of surrealistic insanity, welded together with moments of poetic pondering and steam-punk slick in a frenzied frisson you can almost smell.  Joon-Ho casts each scene in metallic grays and blues that make the living already look half-dead. The entire film plays like a twisted steam-punkish baroque symphony. Violence personified in a garish ballet.  

The train’s self-contained closed ecosystem is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a
stony militia. Those at the front enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. This film isn’t about climate change—that’s just a plot point to serve the premise of a study on how society functions—or rather copes—within a decadent capitalist system, based on an edict of productivity: serve the machine of “life”. Satisfy the sacred machine at all costs; complete with subterfuge, oppression and references to cannibalism. Beneath the film’s blatant statement on the emptiness of the pursuit of capital at any cost lies a deeper more subtle exploration on the nature of humanity. Die to live or live to die?

In a recent interview with io9, Joon-Ho said, “the science fiction genre lends itself perfectly to questions about class struggle, and different types of revolution.”

Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), who confesses to a forced recruit, along the way, “A thousand people in an iron box. No food, no water. After a month we ate the weak. You know what I hate about myself? I know what people tastes like....I know that babies taste best.”

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that: 


"Order is the barrier that holds back the flood o death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn't wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn't belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. 
In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is. 
Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.  
When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe."--Minister Mason 

It's all about the engine for both front and tail. It saved humanity, after all. It is their future. Curtis tells his colleagues that they will move forward: "We take the engine and we control the world. It's time we take the engine."

“Reform and revolution are shibboleths that distinguish liberals from radicals,” explains Aaron Bady
Curtis (Chris Evans)
of The New Inquiry. “While liberals want to reform capitalism, without fundamentally transforming it, radicals want to tear it up from the roots (the root word of “radical” is root!) and replace capitalism with something that isn’t capitalism…If you’re the kind of leftist who thinks that the means of production just need to be in better hands—Obama, for example, instead of George W. Bush, or Elizabeth Warren instead of Obama, or Bernie Sanders instead of Elizabeth Warren, and so on—then this movie buries a poison pill inside its protein bar: soylent green is people.”

Gilliam (John Hurt)
The train “eats” the children of the poor; using them to replace the sacred engine parts that have worn out in a kind of retro-transhumanist collaboration of human and machine and creating a perverse immortal cyborg entity. Only, the individual children die in the process and need to be constantly replaced to maintain the eternal whole. They have become cogs in a giant wheel of eternity.

Curtis’s revolution is doomed from the start; once he reaches the front, it is revealed to him that the entire conflict and resulting deaths were orchestrated all along to help maintain population balance. Wilford (Ed Harris), the genius who created the train with a perpetual motion engine, tells Curtis once they meet that, “this is the world…The engine lasts forever. The population must always be kept in balance.” Which begs the obvious question: why not just get rid of all of the lower class “scum” (as Mason calls them)? That would make room for the privileged. What purpose do these lower class serve? Well, aside from providing their children as parts to the sacred engine, they are there to be hated, feared and despised by the elite. When the soul is empty and needs “filling” but can’t be filled, then it finds a substitute.

Aaron Bady of The New Inquirer relates, “Instead of giving Texans a health care system, for example,
Nam (Song Kang-Ho)
late capitalism gives them the illegal immigrant, to hate, to fear, and to dis-identify with. Prisons do more and more of the system-maintaining work that was once done by schools and hospitals: instead of giving us something to want, they give us something to fear, hate, and kill. And so, we eat ourselves.” We die to live.

Wilford grooms Curtis as the new engineer and reveals to him the true nature of the engine. “You’ve seen what people do without leadership,” says Wilford to Curtis. “They devour one another.” This is dark irony considering what the train is doing. And it is when Curtis discovers this awful truth that his reformist revolution comes to a dead halt and he makes a decision that takes him into the realm beyond the train.

This movie is about hard choices and transcendence. … Save humanity, but at the consequence of our souls? Or transcend a machine that has robbed us of our souls at the expense of our mortality? The film continually questions our definition of what life is; what makes life worth living.

The film, whose script by Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson is based loosely on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, graphically portrays the fecklessness of a reformist/revolutionary movement to transcend the decadent capitalist machine (the train). It begins with the adoption of a failing system from a previously failed system. Perhaps it is a truism that most reformist movements fail to challenge the true hegemony of the system they intend to overtake, given their origin. What we get is little genuine change; just a shuffle in protocol.

Peter Frase of Jacobin Magazine shares that, it’s all the more effective because the heart of that critique comes as a late surprise, from a character we might not expect.”

Namgoog Minsoo (Song Kang-Ho) is a spaced-out drug addict that Curtis ‘liberates’ from a drawer to
Wilford (Ed Harris)
help them open the gates to the forward sections. Like everyone on the train, Nam is a little crazy. But he differs in one important way: he believes there is hope outside the train. Unlike his reformist brothers, he’s looked outside the construct, studied the realm beyond the train. Perhaps it is drug-induced fantasy. Perhaps he’s simply had enough of a lifetime of “non-life” onboard the train and would rather die outside to truly live, even if for a brief moment. When the chance for this moment materializes, we, like Nam and his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-Sung), are more than ready to jump the train. In fact, we’re desperate to get off this shadow game of bread and circuses. Even if it means freezing to death in moments.

Only Yona and one of the rescued children from the engine, survive the train crash, thanks to Curtis’s truly revolutionary decision.

“Is it more revolutionary to want to take control of the society that’s oppressed you, or to try and escape from that system altogether?” asks Joon-Ho.

I felt a cathartic surge of relief when the train
came to a violent crashing stop; even though it effectively meant the end of humanity. My visceral response was incredible relief. The scene following the train crash was —despite the inhospitable and cold environment—surrealistically fresh, invigorating and serene.  Along with Yona and one of the children Curtis rescued, we’ve escaped the rushing perversity: the obsession to survive at any cost. We’ve chosen to live to die.

As Yona and the child crunch through the snow in the quiet depth of coldness, they glimpse a polar bear. There is life! Perhaps not humanity. But life on Earth.

And in that connection, we live. 

Even if just for a moment.




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visitwww.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.




Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ursula K Le Guin Receives Lifetime Achievement Award at NBA

Neil Gaiman presents lifetime achievement award to Ursula K. Le Guin at 2014 National Book Awards from National Book Foundation on Vimeo.

Ursula K. Le Guin first told her audience that she wanted to share her award with her fellow-fantasy and science fiction writers, who have for so long watched "the beautiful awards" like the one she'd just received, go to the "so-called realists". She then went on to say:

"I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries--the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art...The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art...We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings... Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art--the art of words. I've had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don't want to watch American literature get sold down the river... The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom."




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.



Friday, November 21, 2014

Fly Like an Eagle Anthology

I just received my copies of Fly Like an Eagle today. I’m delighted, humbled and so impressed. Delighted that my article on “The First Snow” appears in it; humbled that mine is one of over twenty impressive real life stories of hope and inspiration from all over the world; and impressed with the stunning design, both inside and cover. Bravo, Gary!

The anthology was compiled by Gary Doi with splendid inspirational artwork by celebrated artist Roy Henry Vickers. Design and layout was impeccably attended to, with each piece showcased in a unique way, relevant to its topic.

“An eagle can reach great heights,” Doi shares in the preamble, “by soaring on thermals and then gliding long distances using the smallest amount of energy to rise above circumstances. To soar.”

Fly Like an Eagle is a collection of short stories—real life experiences—that are deeply personal, and spawn moments of reflection. “They probe the eternal question: what gives you hope?” says Doi. Stories express endurance, triumph, accomplishment and purpose. Stories span all walks of life and place. A sixty year old grandmother struggling with weight issues describes her first time competing in a grueling triathlon. A young teacher reflects on how a major surgery changed her perspective on life. A librarian describes how greater access to books is helping vulnerable children in Guatemala.

The inspirational stories offer something very precious in today’s world—a gift of hope.”—Kevin Van Tighem, biologist, author and former superintendent of Banff National Park


Book proceeds benefit SORCO, a rescue and rehab and release facility in the Okanagan for injured raptors such as eagles, hawks and owls. Each year this non-profit organization helps dozens of sick and injured raptors that were hit by vehicles, poisoned, or found starving.



Think: donating to a worthwhile cause. 
Think: sending a Christmas present of Hope and Inspiration. 
Think: purchasing a copy.
You can purchase copies of Fly Like an Eagle for $15.04 on Amazon.com or Fly Like an Eagle for £12.30 on Amazon.co.uk


Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book Launch of The Literary Connection Volume I in Mississauga

The Literary Connection (Volume 1; IOWI), an Anthology of prose, & poetry, artwork and photography is launching on Sunday, November 23rd at 3-5 pm at the River Grove Community Centre (5800 River Grove Ave., Mississauga, Ontario).

The event is Free and will serve refreshments

Please RSVP with numbers attending to: cheryl.xavier@sympatico.ca

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friends of Merril Short Story Contest Now Open

Calling all speculative short fiction writers!

Charlotte Ashley just informed me that The Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest is now open for submissions. Here are the guidelines:

From now until February 15th, 2015 our readers will consider speculative short fiction up to 6000 words for the top prize of $500, with two honourable mentions of $50 available as well. After that, the long-listed stories will be passed to our panel of judges, who choose between them the three winners. We encourage multiple submissions, simultaneous submissions, strange submissions – well, for more information on exactly what we want from these submissions, have a look at our guidelines
All entries must be accompanied by $5 CDN (payable by PayPal). If you would like to enter multiple stories, each entry must be accompanied by its own entry fee. All entry fees will go toward supporting the many activities of the Friends of the Merril Collection at the Toronto Public Library, so don’t be shy! Donations to the Friends can also be made directly here
To enter, send your submission to fomsscontest@gmail.com, then click the button below to pay your fee. Please make sure the name of the story on your payment matches the story you have submitted to us!